This much is clear: D.C. residents, or at least the handful of Ward 5 residents who came out to the Lamond-Riggs Library last night, don't have much of a problem with Internet gambling.
At the first of eight community meetings set to discuss the city's controversial new "iGaming" program, few moral or philosophical objections were lodged against the idea that city residents should be able to gamble online legally, with the city getting a cut of the action.
But that's not to say that everyone's fine with the program as currently proposed. Two lines of objection emerged at the meeting: First, that the process by which it was enacted — as a provision in budget legislation not subject to a separate public hearing — was suspicious. And second and more pervasive, that the proceeds from the program — estimated conservatively at $9 million per year — ought to be set aside for particular worthy programs rather than funneled straight into the city's general fund.
D.C. Lottery executive director Buddy Roogow started the 90-minute meeting with a slideshow presentation aiming to tamp down concerns that largely emanated from the fact that this sort of PR campaign wasn't done a year ago, before D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) slipped the gambling provision into a December spending bill.
Among Roogow's talking points:
- The games, targeted at "recreational and social gamblers," will be accessible from inside the District of Columbia only.
- Four games are targeted for the initial rollout: Blackjack, Bingo, an electronic version of traditional lottery scratch cards and the "critically important" Texas hold 'em poker.
- Players will have to register an actual bank account — no credit cards, no PayPal — from which they'll be able to deduct a maximum of $250 a week from their accounts — capping any one player's annual losses at $13,000.
- Businesses (ahem, "secure commercial iGaming locations") can offer connections to the iGaming server, but players will have to bring their own computers to play.
- The iGaming site will not be accessible over mobile networks, and Roogow said the lottery will work with managers of government and office buildings to set up firewalls preventing access from within.
- "Substantial software" is being developed to ensure that users are located within the District, complying with federal law requiring the city to establish a "reasonably designed" system to prevent outsiders from playing.
- The Lottery will offer help for problem gamblers.
The library's small meeting room was fairly packed with a few dozen spectators, but a goodly portion were Lottery and finance officials, council staffers, reporters and non-Ward 5 activists. A handful of folks spoke up after the slideshow to ask questions and raise concerns — only one of whom took issue with the underlying idea that people should have the ability to legally gamble online. Many sought guarantees that the revenue would be set aside for one worthy cause or another — whether education, job training, post-secondary education, homeless veterans, social services in underserved wards.
For instance, Edward Gray, a 65-year-old Ward 7 resident, said he has no problem with the program, if city leaders "make sure it goes to the proper places."
On that question, Roogow deferred to Brown, in attendance at the meeting, who said he was "not closing the door" to dedicating the revenue, but it would depend on the will of the full council. "I have absolutely no problem talking to my colleagues about it," he said.
But dedicating the iGaming revenue stream would be treating it differently from the remainder of city lottery proceeds, which are deposited in the city's general fund — which pays for education and social services along with other things. And many budget wonks frown on dedicated revenue, arguing that it reduces spending flexibility needed to meet year-to-year demands that might not be foreseen when the revenue is initially dedicated.
Besides the funding concerns, there were several who rose to take issue with the process — like the fact that these community meetings are taking place after iGaming, as Brown made clear last night, is already law.
"I don't like the way it was done," said Frank Wilds, a longtime activist in Ward 5 who sharply questioned Brown. "I didn't like the way they back-doored it."
Still, he added, "if people want to gamble, they're going to gamble."